COUNTRY ROADS OF FRANCE
INSIGHT VACATIONS

Country Roads of France is a 16 day Insight tour of France. I also had an extra day at the end to do anything I felt I missed on the tour in Paris.

FRANCE - TRAVEL LOG

Saturday
May 19
I landed in Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport terminal 2B and made my way to terminal 2C for the Insight transfers. I missed the 11am transfers I had planned to catch and had to wait until 2pm. I was moved to some public seats where a drunk, hairy, crude frenchman made a scene for the next two hours. The buses used for the transfers used to park for free and only got 10 minutes free to unload/load passengers before being charged. As a result they wasted fuel circling the airport terminals not entering the car park so to save money (they probably spent more on fuel). On departing the airport we passed a mounted Concorde (F-BVFF) which corresponds with the websites I follow. Finally something Awesome!!

The hotel was located well away from the sights near Porte Mallot. It took me 1 hour to walk from my hotel to the Place de la Concorde. Meeting the tour for the welcome drinks Neil and Robin from last years Italian Escapade was also on the this tour! At the welcome meal we were served a decent sized meal although the duck wasn't consistently cooked and was therefore avoided by most.
Sunday
May 20
The weather was wet as we departed for the Burgundy region - first stop Troyes. Troyes has a quaint old town section with the architecture heavily influenced by the English, with half timber houses and narrow streets. They were taxed on the street level dimensions of the buildings and so the upper levels tended to lean out into the street. An extreme example of this was a lane called "Cat street", so called because the houses were so close that cats could walk across. Troyes is famous for inventing the unit of measure, the Troye ounce.

We proceeded to Chablis for some wine tasting before arriving at Vezelay. Vezelay is a small picturesque hill top commune with an abbey housing the remains of Mary Magdalene. We continued on to our hotel in Dijon where the rain set in. Dinner at the hotel featured a rather tasty appetizer of poached egg in mustard sauce!
Monday
May 21
The rain continued as we visited Beaune to see the hospice with its famous Flemish style roof. It was a public holiday so everything was closed :-( so after a walk I sheltered from the rain in a bus shelter for an hour. So far this was definitely not the high light of the tour.

We had a walking tour of Dijon, the home of a method of making mustard. The old town streets were very nice, and featured an owl that must be touched for luck and a pussy cat which was mounted on a neighbouring roof. The church with the owl also featured many many Gargoyles.

Later we went to Fixin where we visited a Burgundy winery sampling some of the product along with some nice cheesy buns to accompany it. Then off to a restaurant where I had escargots and Coq au vin (chicken slowly cooked in wine - oddly so was I at that stage). We sampled three different cheeses all washed down with loads of wine!
Tuesday
May 22
The next day we set off for the mountain resort town of Chamonix in the French Alps. We piled in to the cable car and rode it to the top of Aiguille du Midi, 3,842m high. Well above cloud level with views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps. I got very dizzy, I assume from the altitude and needed to get down.
Wednesday
May 23
Continuing on the tour, we arrived in Annecy. A picturesque town reminiscent of Geneva on the lake from with medieval buildings, boats and fountains.

We stayed that night in Aix-les-Bains, on the lake front. Dinner was interesting with chicken legs that was clearly not cooked. French food is a real mixed bag. They take great attention and effort on mild tastes from unique ingredients and pay much attention to presentation, but they sometimes fail to cook things properly or serve small portions that you feel its not value for money. I took to carrying bread buns from the supermarket for carbs.
Thursday
May 24
We left Aix-les-Bains driving through some picturesque mountainous countryside on our way to the French riviera. We were originally to stay in Nice but due to the Monaco Gran Prix (24-27 May) and Cannes film festival (16-27 May), things were rather booked out, so we headed along the coast for Juan les pins.

On route we were overtaken by a white Lamborgini, a grey Nissan sports car and a Bentley along with a white panel van. These all had British number plates, traveling in convoy towards Monaco in time for the Grand Prix. I'm wondering if it was Top Gear?

Our hotel in the Cote-d'Azur had a bunch of very tall models in expensive evening wear. There were a fleet of shinny black mercedes out the front so we assumed they were heading for an evening at the Cannes film festival.

I got dressed up for Monte Carlo in a black suit and tie. A cross between James Bond and Johnny English. I wrote my room number on my hand in case I forgot where I was sleeping. Every night in a new location and a new room number can confuse the old brain. If only Bond had thought of this then he wouldn't always end up in strange beds!

We set off for Monte Carlo to see the Casino. The traffic was crazy with detours and road closures due to the rally. We somehow managed to end up on the race course and drove over poll position and across the starting line on the day of the first time trial. Oddly our Insight bus didn't get called back for the Formula 1 finals, but we gave it a good shot! The boats in the harbour and expensive super cars were very impressive. There is serious money on show in Monaco and the riviera in general.
Friday
May 25
We started the day with an hour in the markets of Nice before once again visiting Monaco, this time to see the old town with the palace and cathedral where Princess Grace is buried.

The Grand Prix time trials continued below us and from the vantage point we could see and hear the little cars doing their circuits.

We returned with a short visit to Eze. Due to the time constraints of staying out of Nice the Eze optional tour wasn't offered, but they did visit a perfume factory for free. I took the opportunity to run up the hill and visit the historic old town overlooking the harbour with its gardens. I would have loved to have had more time to take in the place but I was running and the weather was setting in.

The streets were chaotic with it taking 2 hours from Eze to our hotel in Juan les pins. The down side of staying so far out was the travel time needed to get where we needed to be and limiting our time on location (Nice and Eze), the advantage was that I think it was quieter and not so old and run down as Nice.
Saturday
May 26
Leaving Juan les pins we headed for St-Paul-de-Vence. Another picturesque, medieval, hill top town, larger and flatter than Eze and further inland. It was good having the time to take pictures and enjoy the place.

We carried on into Provence, having our lunch stop in Aix-en-Provence. This was a busy modern university town with a series of fountains - two dating back to Roman times.

Continuing on we visited the Pont du Gard (the Roman aqueduct) before reaching our final destination for the day - Avignon. Avignon has a feast of sights including its Papal palace, half bridge and spectacular city walls. Our hotel was in a great location just outside the city walls. The old town was very easy to walk, making it easy for some awesome photo opportunities. The Popes and antipopes relocated to Avignon from 1309 to 1423 during the Catholic schism, before Rome reclaimed it.
Sunday
May 27
Todays excursion included a visit to Les-Baux, another hill top fortified town with plenty of opportunities for photos. We also visited an olive grove and sampled its products, before stopping off at a local winery.

We returned to Avignon for a view of the Pont-d'Avignon and a tour of the Palace of the Popes.
Monday
May 28
Arles was the home of Van Gogh in 1888-89 and was the inspiration to some 300 of his paintings and drawings. It also has a well preserved Roman arena which we visited.

The tour visited Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the delta of the Camargue region. The Camargue is known for its white horses, bull fights, pink flamingos, cowboys and gypsies. We arrived just after the Gypsy festival celebrating Saint Sarah, aka Sara-la-Kali or Black Sara (celebrated annually on 24th May). The place is very commercial, but not as heavily developed as the riviera.

We got in at Nimes on the last day of their feria (23-28 May) to find traffic chaos and partying. I joined in the walk down to the Roman arena through the stalls and bars spilling out onto the street, all playing conflicting styles of party music, just adding audibly to the chaos. The arena was selling tickets to what could have been either a concert or a bull fight.

We seriously timed this trip well being around for the Monaco Grand Prix, Cannes film festival and now these two events.

That night we visited Aigues Monte to explore the walled town and have a Camargue style (Spainish) dinner. A local duo of musicians entertained the group with Gypsy Kings covers. That night back in our Nimes hotel, they played music until 1am in their garden bar. The windows on my seriously run down room were vibrating with their music. The next morning the old lift was playing up, taking Geoffrey for a ride until he escaped. This hotel had to take the cake for the least popular on the tour.
Tuesday
May 29
We left Nimes for Carcassone. A fairytail walled medieval town with castle with genuine origins but completely rebuilt in the 1850s in a less authentic design. The town offered some great photo opportunities. Kind of a medieval looking Disneyland complete with a haunted house ride.

Continuing on we turned north past Toulouse and the European Space Agency's museum/amusement park for our destination of Albi. Albi a red brick town with a famous cathedral. It is also famous for being the birthplace of the artist Toulouse-Lautrec. As with all the hotels on this tour, the location was perfect and it gave me the opportunity to explore Albi at will.
Wednesday
May 30
Our tour departed Albi for Cahors, Rocamadour and finally our hotel in Brive.

Cahors is located on the Lot river and features a notable bridge. Next we visited picturesque Rocamadour, perched on the cliffside and home to a wooden Black Madonna reputed to have been carved by Saint Amator (Amadour). We rode the elevator to the church and saw the Black Madonna before I trekked up the path the the castle on the top of the cliff.

We arrived in Brive which was to be our base in the Dordogne/Lot/Perigord area.
Thursday
May 31
We visited the reproduction of the 17,000 year old prehistoric cave at Lascaux 2. The original Lascaux is closed to the public as the carbon dyoxide from all the visitors was reacting with the cave paintings. Unfortunately Lascaux 2 itself was yet another made-for-the-tourist ride. What was interesting though was that only certain animals were depicted and no plants. This clearly isn't a representation of life but a form of communication. Values are put upon horses and bulls with as yet undeciphed marks inside and outside the images. Like an early form of pictoglyph or religious symbolism. Incidentally I watched a documentary on the plane home about another cave in France 32,000 years old that included images of similar animals but without the extra etchings. That cave included a bears skull placed on a pedestal facing the entrance, much like an alter.

Carrying on we arrived at Sarlat to sample foie gras and enjoy strolling through the picturesque 14th century town. I opted for the excursion to the little settlement of Collonges la Rouge with its red buildings and green gardens. With both Sarlat and Collonges la Rouge the architecture was awesome with plenty of photo opportunities. That night I had my meal in the hotel and experienced the local breed of waiter. They take pleasure in making people suffer!
Friday
June 1
We left Brive heading North to Poitiers where we boarded the TVG high speed train to Paris. The journey took just 1.5 hours. We booked into the Pullman Montparnasse right by the train station.

That night I got the metro to near Notre Dame and took some night photography of the illuminated monuments.
Saturday
June 2
The next morning I had some free time to visit the Louvre. It was awesome visiting the Near east and Egyptian sections. I saw the Mona Lisa and walked through the sculptures areas seeing the Greek Winged Victory and Venus de Milo among others. The Near east collection included such highlights as Hammurabi's code of law (Babylonian) and the impressive Persian sections with their giant sculptures. The Egyptian section included papyrus, famous Akhenaten bust and boat were truly amazing. I'm not into paintings so didn't spend any time in those sections.

Our tour regrouped in the afternoon for a sight seeing tour of Paris. We visited the tomb of Napoleon and had our photos taken in front of the Eiffel tower. The rest of the bus tour was not great with sights passing us by without any photo opportunities. We then joined a Seine cruise which was a waste of time, failing to see anything from the water except bridges and trees. I felt we seriously could have used the time better.

The tour had our farewell dinner at the Grand Cafe Paris before returning to our hotel via the illuminated Eiffel tower. We timed it perfectly as it struck 11pm the light show began. That night I took the metro to see the Sacré Coeur and Moulin Rouge illuminated.
Sunday
June 3
This was our final breakfast of the tour, as some people had flights home that day while others were staying on or continuing their trips elsewhere. I revisited the Sacré Coeur and Monmatre by day. I found what I was looking for except unfortunately, being a Sunday, everything was closed and no artists were out plying their trade. If only we had ditched the Seine cruise we could have visited Monmatre when it was happening and when the weather was fine.

It was drizzling so I returned to Montparnasse and changed hotels to the Pullman Eiffel to have a view of the Eiffel tower from my hotel room! Since everything was closed and the weather was cold and wet I took this day as a down time. The problem of touring is you don't get any down time, weekend to rest up and repack. That night I photographed the light show on the tower.
Monday
June 4
Another day, another train ride. I had burned through a Carnet (Carnet is 10 metro tickets costing 12.50) in two days and was now buying them as I needed them (1.70 each). I required them so I could have breakfast back at the Montparnasse hotel :-) The rest of the day was rather wasted as I had to check out of the hotel and watch my spending (anything I brought I had to carry on the plane). I walked about exploring for a few hours but the weather was bad. I took the RER train to the airport (costing 9.25) to join my flight home. All up I was very impressed with the French rail system, fast cheap and easy to use.

This tour was definitely awesome. The hotels were well situated and we were given maps and information on many of the places we visited. It was well paced and we got to see what was on the itinerary.

RETURNING HOME

Some 30 odd hours later I returned to Christchurch to the coldest day on record in over 100 years! It was the first time I had landed in the snow and we were the only flight allowed in or out that day.

HOME